BY DAVID RUSSELL
Al Matican, the basketball coach who led Cardozo to the 1978 PSAL title, died Saturday due to complications from squamous cell carcinoma. He was 85.
“I used to think it was so cool when his picture was in the paper and when he was on TV,” said Matican’s daughter, Nancy Matican-Bock, who was 10 years old when Cardozo won the title under Matican. “I used to brag all the time. It was like my dad is better than your dad. I was young, although it could’ve been yesterday.”
Matican-Bock, who has three brothers, added that her father was a “gentle giant” who would “protect, advise and guide” players.
Ron Naclerio played and coached under Matican before replacing him in 1981.
“He had such an endearing personality,” Naclerio said. “He had some Don Rickles in him. He had some drill sergeant in him.
He had the personality to tie A,B,C,D and E together.”
Matican was known to some as “The White Shadow” due to his similarity to the lead character played by Ken Howard in the CBS series. One time, a player cut school to see his girlfriend, but was in for a surprise when he got home.
“Dad was sitting on the couch, waiting for him with both venom and love,” Matican-Bock said.
Matican had coached at Andrew Jackson before Chuck Granby, who would set the PSAL wins record, was later surpassed by Naclerio. Matican also taught at Cardozo and had future Mets announcer Howie Rose as a student.
Before Naclerio was a coaching legend, he was a guard on Matican’s team.
“I was a scared little sophomore just trying to impress him,” Naclerio said. “As the point guard, he told me to start talking to the team more. I would talk back to him with suggestions and he liked my suggestions. He would run things by us.”
Matican kept Naclerio around as an assistant, even as Naclerio was playing baseball at St. John’s and majoring in academic administration. He was going to get college credit as an assistant coach for Brian Mahoney at Manhattan College—but due to traveling difficulties, assisted at Cardozo instead. Naclerio impressed Matican by offering to scout an opponent, and not only noted which defense a team played, but also wrote down what each player did and which out-of-bounds plays they would run.
Naclerio was an assistant for the man whom he called “Mr. Matican” even as an adult, during the 1977-1978 title season.
Cardozo had moved to the top division and was 7-6 early in the season before ending up in the finals against Morris High School, a nationally ranked team from the Bronx. Morris’ coach was quoted as saying that he stayed up all night thinking of ways they could lose to Cardozo, and couldn’t think of any.
Cardozo won 46-45—and it was the first time that a Queens school had won the city title in more than 20 years. Three years later, when Naclerio went 1-21, Matican reminded him that it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
“I think of all the times he was there for me,” Naclerio said. “Not just a phone call, but with a letter.”
Matican was getting a knee replacement when Cardozo won the 1999 PSAL title, but the coach watched on the hospital TV and wrote Naclerio a congratulatory letter.
Matican-Bock is often asked if her father was the Cardozo coach when she meets people.
“The first thing they would say is, ‘I didn’t know he had it in him,’” she said. “The second thing is that people either loved him to pieces or feared him. But the fear instilled was as a motivator to make them better.”